Businesses and economic development agencies tackle the worker shortage in the Milwaukee suburbs

  • In Business
  • 2022-11-21 00:13:36Z
  • By Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Help wanted." "Workers needed." "Staffing positions available, inquire within."

The wording may vary, but chances are you've seen similar signs on many businesses in the Milwaukee suburbs as employers seek to hire more workers.

And it's been a challenge.

"It's a candidate-driven market right now," said JP Garcia, partner and director of sales & recruiting for the West Allis location of Express Employment Professionals, a global staffing provider. "People walk in the door and leave with a job," he said.

Statewide unemployment numbers show that most people who want a job, have one.

Wisconsin's unemployment rate declined to a record low of 2.8% in December, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The data also showed that the total number of people in Wisconsin who are counted as unemployed declined to a record low of 86,200.

One way employers are trying to improve their hiring success is by increasing wages because they have to, Garcia said, which has resulted in a de facto increase in the minimum wage.

"There's always been a lot of talk to push the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, and while that didn't technically happen from a legality standpoint, it did happen," he said. "Because everybody's paying at least 15, and if you're not, then you're probably not in the game very much."

Some employers turning down orders due to lack of workers

The leader of the Waukesha County Business Alliance, a countywide chamber of commerce with more than 1,200 member organizations representing more than 75,000 employees, said most employers are telling the WCBA that they're in an expansion and hiring mode.

Because of the tight labor market and difficulty in filling open positions, WCBA President and CEO Suzanne Kelley said some employers are turning down potential orders or are having to get creative to meet the demands of their customers.

"They are partnering with other organizations to fill orders, seeking new suppliers and, unfortunately, moving some work to other locations, sometimes outside of Wisconsin, where the labor market is not as tight," Kelley said.

She said nearly every business leader they talk to says their company is affected by the shortage, with construction, health care, manufacturing and retail/hospitality among the hardest hit industries.

Eatery offering partnerships as an incentive

Edwin Ordones, owner of McCoco's Restaurant, which opened in January in West Allis, isn't offering sky-high wages, but he is taking a strategic approach in an effort to woo workers.

Ordones plans to expand his business beyond a single restaurant, so he's looking to not only keep his current restaurant staffed, but employ workers at potential future locations.

To do it, he's offering his employees a chance to become his partner - without cost.

"So if they learn the system, which we're going to develop in the next year, they will be my business partners with no money," he said. "I want a kid that could be 17 years old and be able to run the kitchen and run the bar and manage the place. That's how easy I want this business to be."

Ordones said he started working in the restaurant business as a server when he was 17, saved his money, and opened his first restaurant at 23.

"People nowadays, they don't like what they do, and they don't see growth and they just quit," he said. "They keep changing. So it's hard to get people right now."

Garcia said that jibes with what he's seeing.

"We're having a lot of people come in and say they want to work until they're blue in the face, and then we put them on a job, and then they don't show up," Garcia said. "Or they go for a day and then they disappear. It's just unchartered waters."

And he said it's not just happening with workers doing general labor.

"We've had a lot of hiring managers or people that are in the position of leadership or management that have showed up on the first day for orientation, and just never came back, which is something I've never seen in the course of my career," he said.

Worker shortage due to a numbers game

As for the broader question of why the worker shortage exists, Kelley said it's due to a demographic trend.

Not enough workers are coming into the system to replace those leaving.

"Baby boomers are retiring in large numbers, while the number of younger replacement workers is declining," she said. "Because of low birth rates, K-12 class sizes (our future workforce) are projected to decline for at least the next 10 years."

The problem is being exacerbated by other factors, she said, including the pandemic, child care issues, transportation challenges and, at least locally, a shortage of workforce housing and lack of moderately priced homes in Waukesha County.

Waukesha restaurant looks for workers to reopen

In the city of Waukesha, a popular rib joint is working on hiring new staff as it looks to reopen following a four-month absence - and it's been a challenge.

Pat's Rib Place closed in October as its owners, Alisha and Ty Hayes, juggled their schedules to accommodate their new eatery inside the Milwaukee Public Market.

Now, as they look to again swing open the doors of their location at 151 E. Sunset Drive, they need to find staff to do it.

"We are still in the process of reopening, still holding interviews - actually at both locations," Hayes told the Journal Sentinel on Feb. 23. "Still working on it."

Pat's Rib Place initially announced in October that it needed to hire enough new workers to round out its staff of about 20 people in Waukesha.

But hiring has proved more difficult than expected, and Hayes said the restaurant now is targeting a late March opening.

Workers more likely to switch jobs for better pay

Garcia said some job vacancies are being created by the current employment climate, as some workers jump ship for better wages.

"People having the ability to almost pick and choose where they want to go is creating some of the turnover, because if somebody's making $16 an hour, and all of a sudden they get an opportunity offering even $17, a dollar more, or $18, they're running for it."

Job loyalty, where many people would stay at one place for their entire careers, is now the exception rather than the rule, he said.

"A lot of people make moves, especially people that are skilled, and they know if they go somewhere else, they can get a way bigger increase than staying with their employer," Garcia said.

Worker shortage not a new issue

Kelley said the worker shortage issue isn't new to the WCBA; the organization has been working to attract, develop and retain talent in Waukesha County for more than a decade.

She said longstanding programs such as Schools2Skills tours, Connecting Counselors and Superintendent Roundtables continue, and the alliance continues to work with its member businesses and other regional partners on other solutions and strategies.

"We are a partner in the FlexRide pilot to connect Milwaukee job seekers with employers in Butler and Menomonee Falls," Kelley said. "We continue to work toward workforce housing solutions. In partnership with Waukesha County Technical College, we are in the initial stages of launching a new Workforce Solutions Leadership Council to explore and implement additional areas that impact workforce such as child care and immigration."

Contact Bob Dohr at 262-361-9140 or Follow him on Twitter at @BobDohr1.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Effects of worker shortage are felt throughout the Milwaukee suburbs


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